Greenfield v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration
Court Docket Sheet
District of Arizona2:2015-cv-02199 (azd)
ORDER affirming the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Clerk shall enter judgment accordingly. Signed by Magistrate Judge Eileen S Willett on 3/6/17.
Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 1 of 16 1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 Brian Fredrick Greenfield, No. CV-15-02199-PHX-ESW 9 10 Plaintiff, ORDER 11 v. 12 Acting Commissioner of the Social Security 13 Administration, 14 Defendant. 15 16 17 Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Brian Fredrick Greenfieldâs ("Plaintiff") 18 appeal of the Social Security Administrationâs ("Social Security") denial of his 19 applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under 20 Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning on 21 November 15, 2011. This Court has jurisdiction to decide Plaintiffâs appeal pursuant to 22 42 U.S.C. Â§Â§ 405(g), 1383(c). Under 42 U.S.C. Â§ 405(g), the Court has the power to 23 enter, based upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, 24 modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or 25 without remanding the case for a rehearing. Both parties have consented to the exercise 26 of U.S. Magistrate Judge jurisdiction. (Doc. 17). 27 28 Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 2 of 16 1 After reviewing the Administrative Record ("A.R.") and the partiesâ briefing 2 (Docs. 16, 21), the Court finds that the Administrative Law Judgeâs ("ALJ") decision is 3 supported by substantial evidence and is free of harmful legal error. 4 I. LEGAL STANDARDS 5 A. Disability Analysis: Five-Step Evaluation 6 The Social Security Act (the "Act") provides for disability insurance benefits to 7 those who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a 8 physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. Â§ 423(a)(1). The Act also provides for 9 Supplemental Security Income to certain individuals who are aged 65 or older, blind, or 10 disabled and have limited income. 42 U.S.C. Â§ 1382. To be eligible for benefits based 11 on an alleged disability, the claimant must show that he or she suffers from a medically 12 determinable physical or mental impairment that prohibits him or her from engaging in 13 any substantial gainful activity. 42 U.S.C. Â§ 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. Â§ 1382c(A)(3)(A). 14 The claimant must also show that the impairment is expected to cause death or last for a 15 continuous period of at least 12 months. Id. 16 To decide if a claimant is entitled to Social Security benefits, an ALJ conducts an 17 analysis consisting of five questions, which are considered in sequential steps. 20 C.F.R. 18 Â§Â§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). The claimant has the burden of proof regarding the first four 19 steps: 1 20 Step One: Is the claimant engaged in "substantial gainful 21 activity"? If so, the analysis ends and disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two. 22 23 Step Two: Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? A severe 24 impairment is one which significantly limits the claimantâs 25 physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 26 C.F.R. Â§Â§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, 27 28 1 Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742,746 (9th Cir. 2007).-2-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 3 of 16 1 disability benefits are denied at this step. Otherwise, the ALJ 2 proceeds to step three. 3 Step Three: Is the impairment equivalent to one of a number 4 of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 5 C.F.R. Â§Â§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the impairment meets 6 or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is 7 conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to 8 the fourth step of the analysis. 9 Step Four: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from 10 performing work which the claimant performed in the past? 11 If not, the claimant is "not disabled" and disability benefits are denied without continuing the analysis. 20 C.F.R. Â§Â§ 12 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to the 13 last step. 14 If the analysis proceeds to the final question, the burden of proof shifts to the 15 Commissioner: 2 16 Step Five: Can the claimant perform other work in the 17 national economy in light of his or her age, education, and work experience? The claimant is entitled to disability 18 benefits only if he or she is unable to perform other work. 20 19 C.F.R. Â§Â§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). Social Security is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that 20 other work exists in significant numbers in the national 21 economy that the claimant can do, given the claimantâs residual functional capacity, age, education, and work 22 experience. Id. 23 B. Standard of Review Applicable to ALJâs Determination 24 The Court must affirm an ALJâs decision if it is supported by substantial evidence 25 and is based on correct legal standards. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 26 2012); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Although "substantial 27 28 2 Parra, 481 F.3d at 746.-3-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 4 of 16 1 evidence" is less than a preponderance, it is more than a "mere scintilla." Richardson v. 2 Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 3 229 (1938)). It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as 4 adequate to support a conclusion. Id. 5 In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJâs decision, the 6 Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and 7 detracts from the ALJâs conclusions. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 8 1998); Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). If there is sufficient 9 evidence to support the ALJâs determination, the Court cannot substitute its own 10 determination. See Morgan v. Commâr of the Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th 11 Cir. 1999) ("Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it 12 is the ALJâs conclusion that must be upheld."); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 13 (9th Cir. 1989). This is because the ALJ, not the Court, is responsible for resolving 14 conflicts and ambiguities in the evidence and determining credibility. Magallanes, 881 15 F.2d at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). 16 The Court also considers the harmless error doctrine when reviewing an ALJâs 17 decision. This doctrine provides that an ALJâs decision need not be remanded or 18 reversed if it is clear from the record that the error is "inconsequential to the ultimate 19 nondisability determination." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) 20 (citations omitted); Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115 (an error is harmless so long as there 21 remains substantial evidence supporting the ALJâs decision and the error "does not 22 negate the validity of the ALJâs ultimate conclusion") (citations omitted). 23 II. PLAINTIFFâS APPEAL 24 A. Procedural Background 25 Plaintiff, who was born in 1956, has worked as an automobile mechanic. (A.R. 26 44-45, 59). In 2012, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits 27 and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income benefits. (A.R. 214-15, 28 216-24). The applications allege that on January 1, 2006, Plaintiff became unable to-4-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 5 of 16 1 work due to the following impairments: (i) arthritis; (ii) back problems; (iii) high blood 2 pressure; (iv) diabetes; and (v) depression. (A.R. 59, 79). Social Security denied both 3 applications on October 19, 2012. (A.R. 150-56). On June 12, 2013, upon Plaintiffâs 4 request for reconsideration, Social Security affirmed the denial of Plaintiffâs applications. 5 (A.R. 158-63). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (A.R. 164). At the 6 administrative hearing, Plaintiff amended the alleged disability onset date to November 7 15, 2011. (A.R. 23, 54). On April 24, 2014, the ALJ who conducted the hearing issued a 8 decision finding that Plaintiff has not been under a disability as defined in the Social 9 Security Act from January 1, 2006 through the date of the decision. (A.R. 23-34). The 10 Appeals Council denied Plaintiffâs request for review, making the ALJâs decision the 11 final decision of the Social Security Commissioner. (A.R. 1-6, 18-19). On November 2, 12 2015, Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Â§ 405(g) requesting 13 judicial review and reversal of the ALJâs decision. 14 B. The ALJâs Application of the Five-Step Disability Analysis 15 The ALJ completed all five steps of the disability analysis before finding that 16 Plaintiff is not disabled and entitled to disability benefits. 17 1. Step One: Engagement in "Substantial Gainful Activity" 18 The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity 19 since November 15, 2011. (A.R. 25). Neither party disputes this determination. 20 2. Step Two: Presence of Medically Severe Impairment/Combination 21 of Impairments 22 The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: (i) 23 degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; (ii) hypertension; (iii) diabetes mellitus; 24 and (iv) depression (A.R. 25). The ALJâs step two determination is undisputed. 25 3. Step Three: Presence of Listed Impairment(s) 26 The ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of 27 impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, 28-5-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 6 of 16 1 Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Social Security regulations. (A.R. 25-27). Neither party 2 disputes the ALJâs determination at this step. 3 4. Step Four: Capacity to Perform Past Relevant Work 4 The ALJ found that Plaintiff has retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") 5 to perform medium exertional work as defined in 20 C.F.R. Â§Â§ 404.1567(c) and 6 416.967(c), except that: 7 [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, unskilled work. [Plaintiff] has the abilities (on a sustained basis) to understand, carry out, 8 and remember simple instructions; to respond appropriately to 9 supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting. 10 (A.R. 27). After considering Plaintiffâs RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable 11 to perform his past relevant work as an automobile mechanic. (A.R. 33). Although 12 neither party challenges the ALJâs determination that Plaintiff is unable perform his past 13 work, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJâs RFC assessment does not account for all of 14 Plaintiffâs limitations. (Doc. 16 at 9-16). 15 5. Step Five: Capacity to Perform Other Work 16 At the final step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to perform other jobs existing 17 in significant numbers in the national economy. (A.R. 33-34). In making this finding, 18 the ALJ relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids"). Plaintiff argues that 19 the ALJ erred at Step Five by failing to consult a Vocational Expert ("VE") when 20 determining that Plaintiff can perform other work. (Doc. 16 at 20). 21 C. Plaintiffâs Challenge to the ALJâs RFC Assessment 22 1. The ALJ Did Not Improperly Discount the Opinions of Examining 23 Psychologist Dr. David Young 24 In weighing medical source opinions in Social Security cases, there are three 25 categories of physicians: (i) treating physicians, who actually treat the claimant; (ii) 26 examining physicians, who examine but do not treat the claimant; and (iii) non-27 examining physicians, who neither treat nor examine the claimant. Lester v. Chater, 81 28 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). An ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons that-6-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 7 of 16 1 are supported by substantial evidence for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of a 2 treating or examining doctor. Id. at 830-31; Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 3 (9th Cir. 2005). An ALJ cannot reject a treating or examining physicianâs opinion in 4 favor of another physicianâs opinion without first providing specific and legitimate 5 reasons that are supported by substantial evidence. 6 On September 13, 2012, consulting psychologist Dr. David Young examined 7 Plaintiff. (A.R. 644-49). Dr. Young opined that Plaintiff "has adequate ability to 8 understand simple direction," but "has serious difficulties with regard to concentrating 9 and persisting on tasks at hand." (A.R. 648). Dr. Young also opined that Plaintiff is 10 easily discouraged, is "quite withdrawn socially," "gets irritated easily," "gets very 11 impatient," and "will need some help with regard to maintaining standards of neatness." 12 (A.R. 649). Dr. Young concluded that Plaintiff "has little ability to work for extended 13 periods of time" and "is likely to have difficulty maintaining responsibilities on the job." 14 (A.R. 648-49). 15 The ALJ gave Dr. Youngâs opinions little weight. (A.R. 32). Because Dr. 16 Youngâs opinions were contradicted by another acceptable medical source, 3 the Court 17 must evaluate whether the ALJâs reasons for discounting Dr. Youngâs opinions are 18 specific and legitimate. 19 The ALJ gave two reasons for discounting Dr. Youngâs opinions. First, the ALJ 20 found that Dr. Youngâs opinions are not supported by Dr. Youngâs objective findings 21 from the examination. (A.R. 32). The ALJ did not unreasonably state that Dr. Youngâs 22 objective findings were generally within normal limits. (Id.). For instance, Dr. Young 23 observed that Plaintiff "had good immediate memory of words read to him. He had no 24 difficulty recalling the same three words after a short delay. He had no difficulty 25 counting backwards x7." (A.R. 644). Dr. Young also noted that Plaintiff spoke clearly, 26 was cooperative, was alert, his "attention was good," and "[h]is thought processes were 27 28 3 Dr. Youngâs opinions were contradicted by Drs. Diane Kogut and Lynette M., who opined that Plaintiff could perform unskilled work. (A.R. 75, 119).-7-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 8 of 16 1 logical and goal directed." (A.R. 645). Although Dr. Young also stated that Plaintiffâs 2 "affect was flat and blunted," his "[m]ood was depressed and anxious," and "[h]e 3 sounded impatient and irritable," it is well-settled that an ALJ, not the Court, is 4 responsible for resolving conflicts and ambiguity in the evidence. Magallanes, 881 F.2d 5 at 750; see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The Court does 6 not find that the ALJ unreasonably concluded that Dr. Youngâs opinions are unsupported 7 by Dr. Youngâs examination findings. The ALJâs first reason for discounting Dr. 8 Youngâs opinions is specific and legitimate and is supported by substantial evidence. See 9 Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1149 (9th Cir. 2001); Batson v. Commâr of Soc. 10 Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1195 (9th Cir. 2004); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 11 957 (9th Cir. 2002). 12 The ALJ also found that Dr. Youngâs observations are inconsistent with the 13 observations of other treating sources. (A.R. 32). For instance, the ALJ correctly 14 recounted that treating physician Dr. Russell Hissock noted in June 2013 that Plaintiff 15 had good judgment, was oriented to time, place, and person, had a normal mood, was 16 active and alert, and had normal recent and remote memory. (A.R. 32, 670). The Court 17 finds that the ALJâs finding that Dr. Youngâs opinions are inconsistent with the record is 18 a valid reason for discounting the opinions and is supported by substantial evidence. See 19 20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1527(c)(4) (ALJ must consider whether an opinion is consistent with the 20 record as a whole); Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1041 (finding it not improper for an ALJ to 21 reject a physicianâs opinion that is inconsistent with the record). 22 Finally, the ALJ stated that "it appears Dr. Young primarily relied upon the 23 claimantâs own subjective statements in determining the claimantâs mental functional 24 capacity." (A.R. 32). "An ALJ may reject a treating physicianâs opinion if it is based'to 25 a large extentâ on a claimantâs self-reports that have been properly discounted as 26 incredible." Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1041; see also Tonapetyan, 242 F.3d at 1149. Dr. 27 Young wrote numerous statements that reflect Plaintiffâs own account of his symptoms, 28 such as Plaintiff "reports he is having some problems remembering things," Plaintiff "has-8-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 9 of 16 1 had [anxiety attacks] a few times by his report," and Plaintiff says "he is frustrated...." 2 (A.R. 645). The ALJâs conclusion that Dr. Youngâs opinions are largely premised on 3 Plaintiffâs subjective complaints is not unreasonable. As explained in Section II(C)(3) 4 below, the ALJ did not improperly discount Plaintiffâs testimony. The Court finds that 5 the ALJâs final reason for giving Dr. Youngâs opinions little weight is specific and 6 legitimate and is supported by substantial evidence. 7 In light of the Courtâs finding that the ALJ did not improperly discount Dr. 8 Youngâs opinions, the Court does not find persuasive Plaintiffâs argument that the ALJâs 9 RFC assessment fails to account for moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, 10 and pace. 4 (Doc. 16 at 9-14). 11 2. Alleged Limitations Regarding Social Functioning 12 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to incorporate limitations related to Plaintiffâs 13 social functioning. (Doc. 16 at 14). In support of this argument, Plaintiff cites the 14 opinion of non-examining psychological consultant Dr. Lynette M., who opined that 15 Plaintiff was "markedly limited" in the abilities to understand, remember, and carry out 16 detailed instructions and to interact appropriately with the general public. (A.R. 117-18). 17 However, Dr. M. opined that Plaintiff was "not significantly limited" in the abilities to 18 understand, remember, and carry out very short and simple instructions and to remember 19 locations and work-like procedures. (A.R. 117). Dr. M. also opined that Plaintiff had no 20 significant limitations in abilities to (i) maintain attention and concentration for extended 21 periods; (ii) sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; (iii) work in 22 coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; (iv) make 23 24 4 While the ALJ found at Step Three that Plaintiff has a moderate limitation in 25 concentration, persistence, or pace, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "still has the ability to sustain focused attention and concentration sufficiently long enough to permit the timely 26 and appropriate completion of tasks commonly found in work settings despite his alleged mental impairment." (A.R. 26). This limitation is captured by the ALJâs RFC 27 assessment, which restricts Plaintiff to simple, unskilled work. See, e.g., Sabin v. Astrue, 337 F. Appâx 617, 620 (9th Cir. 2009) ("The ALJ determined the end result of Sabinâs 28 moderate difficulties as to concentration, persistence, or pace was that she could do simple and repetitive tasks on a consistent basis.").-9-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 10 of 16 1 simple work-related decisions; (v) complete a normal workday and workweek without 2 interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; (vi) accept instructions and respond 3 appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and (vii) get along with coworkers or peers. 4 (A.R. 117-18). 5 Dr. M. concluded that Plaintiff "is able to perform work where interpersonal 6 contact is incidental to work performed, e.g. assembly work" and assessed that Plaintiff 7 could perform unskilled work. (A.R. 119). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly 8 rejected Dr. M.âs opinion that Plaintiff is only able to perform work that involves limited 9 interaction with the general public. (Doc. 16 at 14-16). 10 The ALJ limited Plaintiff to "simple, unskilled" work. (A.R. 27). "The basic 11 mental demands of competitive, remunerative, unskilled work include the abilities (on a 12 sustained basis) to understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; to respond 13 appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and to deal with 14 changes in a routine work setting." Social Security Ruling 85-15 ("SSR 85-15"), 1985 15 WL 56857, at *4 (1985); see also 20 C.F.R. Â§ 416.968(a). "These jobs ordinarily 16 involve dealing primarily with objects, rather than with data or people, and they generally 17 provide substantial vocational opportunity for persons with solely mental 18 impairments who retain the capacity to meet the intellectual and emotional demands of 19 such jobs on a sustained basis." SSR 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4. By limiting Plaintiff 20 to "simple, unskilled work," the ALJâs RFC assessment adequately captures Dr. M.âs 21 opinion that Plaintiff is limited to perform work where interpersonal contact is incidental 22 to work performed. See, e.g., Rogers v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 09âCVâ01972âJLT, 23 2011 WL 445047 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 25, 2011) (stating that "unskilled work accommodates a 24 need for limited contact with the general public"), aff'd, 490 Fed. Appx. 15 (9th Cir. Jul. 25 20, 2012) (holding a residual functional capacity for simple routine tasks, which did not 26 expressly note the claimantâs moderate limitations in interacting with others, nonetheless 27 adequately accounted for such limitations). Therefore, any error in failing to include in 28 the RFC assessment a limitation with respect to public interaction is harmless. See-10-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 11 of 16 1 Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 1169, 1174 (to extent ALJâs RFC finding 2 erroneously omitted claimantâs postural limitations, any error was harmless since 3 sedentary jobs required infrequent stooping, balancing, crouching, or climbing). 4 3. The ALJ Provided Specific, Clear, and Convincing Reasons for 5 Discounting Plaintiffâs Symptom Testimony 6 Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in discrediting Plaintiffâs testimony regarding 7 his subjective symptoms. When evaluating the credibility of a plaintiffâs testimony 8 regarding subjective pain or symptoms, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. 9 Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). In the first step, the ALJ must 10 determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an 11 underlying impairment "which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other 12 symptoms alleged." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007). The 13 plaintiff does not have to show that the impairment could reasonably be expected to cause 14 the severity of the symptoms. Rather, a plaintiff must only show that it could have 15 caused some degree of the symptoms. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1282 (9th Cir. 16 1996). 17 If a plaintiff meets the first step, and there is no evidence of malingering, the ALJ 18 can only reject a plaintiffâs testimony about the severity of his or her symptoms by 19 offering specific, clear, and convincing reasons. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036. The 20 ALJ cannot rely on general findings. The ALJ must identify specifically what testimony 21 is not credible and what evidence undermines the plaintiffâs complaints. Berry v. Astrue, 22 622 F.3d 1228, 1234 (9th Cir. 2010). In weighing a plaintiffâs credibility, the ALJ can 23 consider many factors including: a plaintiffâs reputation for truthfulness, prior 24 inconsistent statements concerning the symptoms, unexplained or inadequately explained 25 failure to seek treatment, and the plaintiffâs daily activities. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284; see 26 also 20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1529(c)(4) (Social Security must consider whether there are 27 conflicts between a claimantâs statements and the rest of the evidence). In addition, 28 although the lack of medical evidence cannot form the sole basis for discounting pain-11-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 12 of 16 1 testimony, it is a factor that the ALJ can consider in his or her credibility analysis. See 20 2 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1529(c)(2); Rollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001); Burch 3 v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676 (9th Cir. 2005). 4 In discounting Plaintiffâs testimony, the ALJ stated that Plaintiff has received 5 "routine, conservative treatment on an infrequent basis for the alleged impairments." 6 (A.R. 28). Generally, "[e]vidence of'conservative treatmentâ is sufficient to discount a 7 claimantâs testimony regarding severity of an impairment." Parra, 481 F.3d at 751; see 8 also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 638 (9th Cir. 2007) ("Our case law is clear that if a 9 claimant complains about disabling pain but fails to seek treatment, or fails to follow 10 prescribed treatment, for the pain, an ALJ may use such failure as a basis for finding the 11 complaint unjustified or exaggerated.); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 12 1999) (the ALJ properly considered the physicianâs failure to prescribe, and the 13 claimant's failure to request, medical treatment commensurate with the "supposedly 14 excruciating pain" alleged). However, "[d]isability benefits may not be denied because 15 of the claimant's failure to obtain treatment he cannot obtain for lack of funds." Orn, 495 16 F.3d at 638 (quoting Gamble v. Chater, 68 F.3d 319, 321 (9th Cir. 1995)) (alteration in 17 original). 18 Here, the record does not reflect that Plaintiffâs impairments required more than 19 conservative treatment. For example, in a September 2013 treatment note, Dr. Russell 20 Hiscock stated "labs looked pretty good considering [Plaintiff] had not seen a doctor for 21 several years and had not have [sic] his medications. Generally doing well today. 22 Complaining of some hand pain. Otherwise voices no acute complaints, issues, or 23 concerns today and denies any other interim changes in his health status." (A.R. 657). 24 Plaintiff is ultimately responsible for providing the evidence to be used in making 25 the RFC finding. Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1040 (a claimant bears the burden of proving 26 entitlement to disability benefits); Meanel, 172 F.3d at 1113 (claimant carries burden to 27 present "complete and detailed objective medical reports" of his or her condition from 28 licensed medical professionals). The Court finds that the ALJâs conclusion that Plaintiff-12-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 13 of 16 1 has received minimal and conservative medical treatment is supported by substantial 2 evidence in the record. Because an ALJ may infer that pain is not disabling if a claimant 3 seeks only minimal, conservative treatment, the ALJ did not err in concluding that the 4 conservative and infrequent treatment Plaintiff has received is inconsistent with 5 Plaintiffâs allegations regarding the severity of his symptoms. (A.R. 28). See Burch, 400 6 F.3d at 681 (finding that if claimantâs complaints of back pain was "not severe enough to 7 motivate" the claimant to seek specialized treatment for the back pain (e.g. chiropractor 8 visits, physical therapy, etc.), it "is powerful evidence" regarding the extent to which the 9 claimant was in pain, even if the claimant did seek some treatment). 10 The ALJ also discounted Plaintiffâs testimony because "[t]he positive objective 11 clinical and diagnostic finding since the amended onset" does not support more restrictive 12 functional limitations than those contained in the assessed RFC. (A.R. 28). Because the 13 ALJ did not rely solely on the lack of supporting medical evidence in rejecting Plaintiffâs 14 testimony, the ALJ properly considered whether the objective medical evidence 15 corroborates Plaintiffâs claimed limitations. Rollins, 261 F.3d at 857 ("While subjective 16 pain testimony cannot be rejected on the sole ground that it is not fully corroborated by 17 objective medical evidence, the evidence is still a relevant factor in determining the 18 severity of the claimantâs pain and its disabling effects.") (citing 20 C.F.R. Â§ 19 404.1529(c)(2)). 20 Substantial evidence supports the ALJâs finding that Plaintiffâs symptom 21 testimony is inconsistent with the objective evidence. For instance, the ALJ correctly 22 recounted the September 2012 findings by evaluating physician William Chaffee, M.D., 23 who opined that Plaintiff could perform a range of heavy work despite Plaintiffâs 24 diagnoses of Type II diabetes, hypertension, diabetic peripheral neuropathy, bilateral 25 Dupuytrenâs contracture, chronic back pain, and possible chronic pulmonary fibroses. 26 (A.R. 29, 628-33). The ALJ also correctly recounted medical records that indicate that 27 Plaintiffâs condition was generally unremarkable, such as a September 2013 treatment 28-13-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 14 of 16 1 note indicating that Plaintiff had normal motor strength, normal tone, and normal 2 movement of all extremities. (A.R. 29-30, 658). 3 For the above reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ provided specific, clear, and 4 convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence when the ALJ discounted 5 Plaintiffâs testimony regarding his symptoms. 6 4. The ALJ Did Not Err at Step Five by Relying on the Grids 7 At the fifth step of the disability analysis, the burden rests on the Commissioner to 8 show that the claimant can engage in work that exists in significant numbers in the 9 national economy. 20 C.F.R. Â§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Lockwood v. Commâr of Soc. Sec. 10 Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010). In determining whether the claimant 11 retains the ability to perform other work, an ALJ may refer to the Grids in certain cases. 12 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 Â§ 200.00; Desrosiers v. Sec. of Health and 13 Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576-77 (9th Cir. 1988). The Grids are divided into three 14 job categories: (i) sedentary work, (ii) light work, and (iii) medium work. 20 C.F.R. Part 15 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, Â§ 200.00. The Grids calculate whether or not the claimant is 16 disabled based on the claimantâs exertional physical ability, age, education, and work 17 experience. As such, the Grids are intended to streamline the administrative process and 18 encourage uniform treatment of claims. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 460-62 19 (1983) (discussing the creation and purpose of the Grids). 20 However, an ALJ should rely on the Grids "only when the [G]rids accurately and 21 completely describe the claimantâs abilities and limitations." Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 22 993, 998 (9th Cir. 1985); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1102 (9th Cir. 1999) 23 (noting that the Grids "should be applied only where a claimantâs functional limitations 24 fall into a standardized pattern'accurately and completelyâ described by the [G]rids" and 25 that a VE should be consulted where limitations "significantly limit the range of work" a 26 person can perform) (citation omitted). Use of the Grids is inappropriate where a 27 claimant has non-exertional limitations that restrict the claimantâs ability to perform the 28 full range of work within a job category. Burkhart, 856 F.2d at 1340-41. Examples of-14-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 15 of 16 1 non-exertional limitations include those "mental, sensory, postural, manipulative, or 2 environmental (e.g., inability to tolerate dust or fumes) limitations." Desrosiers, 846 3 F.2d at 579. 4 The presence of a non-exertional limitation does not automatically preclude 5 application of the Grids. See id. at 577. Rather, a non-exertional limitation must be 6 "âsufficiently severeâ so as to significantly limit the range of work permitted by the 7 claimantâs exertional limitation." Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1076 (9th Cir. 2007). 8 Moreover, a finding that a non-exertional impairment is severe at step two does not 9 necessarily mean it is "sufficiently severe" to significantly limit the range of work 10 permitted by a claimantâs exertional limitation. As the Ninth Circuit has explained, the 11 determinations at steps two and five require different levels of severity of limitations, 12 "otherwise the two steps would collapse and a [VE] would be required in every case in 13 which a step-two determination of severity is made." Id. 14 Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by relying on the Grids because "the 15 evidence, including the opinions from Dr. Young and [Dr. M.], indicates that [Plaintiff[16 had significant and distinct functional limitations which would impact his ability to 17 perform jobs in the national economy." (Doc. 16 at 20). However, as explained above, 18 the ALJ did not err in discounting Dr. Youngâs opinion. As also explained above, any 19 error in omitting from the RFC assessment Dr. M.âs opinion that Plaintiff should be 20 restricted to jobs that have limited interaction with the general public is harmless. 21 Because substantial evidence supports the ALJâs finding that Plaintiff does not 22 possess non-exertional limitations that are sufficiently severe to limit Plaintiffâs ability to 23 perform unskilled work, the ALJ did not err by exclusively relying on the Grids at Step 24 Five of the disability analysis. See Hoopai, 499 F.3d at 1077 (stating "we have not 25 previously held mild or moderate depression to be a sufficiently severe non-exertional 26 limitation that significantly limits a claimantâs ability to do work beyond the exertional 27 limitation" and holding that substantial evidence supported a n ALJâs conclusion that 28 a claimantâs depression was not a sufficiently severe non-exertional limitation that-15-Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 22 Filed 03/07/17 Page 16 of 16 1 prohibited the ALJâs reliance on the Grids without the assistance of a VE). The Court 2 therefore finds that the Commissioner satisfied the burden at Step Five in showing that 3 Plaintiff can perform other work in the national economy that exists in significant 4 numbers. 5 III. CONCLUSION 6 Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that the ALJâs decision is supported by 7 substantial evidence and is free from reversible error. Accordingly, the decision of the 8 Commissioner of Social Security is affirmed. 9 IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED affirming the decision of the Commissioner of 10 Social Security. The Clerk of Court shall enter judgment accordingly. 11 Dated this 6th day of March, 2017. 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28-16-
CLERK'S JUDGMENT - IT IS ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that pursuant to the Court's Order filed March 7, 2017, the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is AFFIRMED and this action is hereby terminated.
Case 2:15-cv-02199-ESW Document 23 Filed 03/07/17 Page 1 of 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 Brian Fredrick Greenfield, NO. CV-15-02199-PHX-ESW 10 Plaintiff, JUDGMENT IN A CIVIL CASE 11 v. 12 Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 13 Defendant. 14 15 Decision by Court. This action came for consideration before the Court. The 16 issues have been considered and a decision has been rendered. 17 IT IS ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that pursuant to the Courtâs Order filed 18 March 7, 2017, the Decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is AFFIRMED and 19 this action is hereby terminated. 20 Brian D. Karth District Court Executive/Clerk of Court 21 22 March 7, 2017 s/D. Draper 23 By Deputy Clerk 24 25 26 27 28
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